Why did Roger try to steal Mrs. Jones's purse in "Thank You, M'am" by Langston Hughes?

Roger tried to steal Mrs. Jones's purse in "Thank You, M'am" to acquire enough money to purchase a pair of blue suede shoes.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

At the beginning of Langston Hughes's celebrated short story "Thank You, M'am," Roger attempts to steal Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones's purse but ends up falling on the sidewalk. Mrs. Jones proceeds to kick Roger before grabbing him by his collar and instructing him to pick up her purse. When Roger admits that he will run away if she lets him go, Mr. Jones refuses to turn him loose and begins dragging him home. While Mrs. Jones is dragging Roger to her house, she notices that he is dirty, asks if he is hungry, and mentions that he ought to be her son.

Once Mrs. Jones takes Roger into her home, she instructs him to wash his face and begins preparing a home-cooked meal for him. When Mrs. Jones comments on Roger's bold actions, he admits that he tried to steal her pocketbook in order to buy a pair of blue suede shoes. As a poor black teenager, Roger desired to have fashionable blue suede shoes, which were popular during that era. Instead of scolding Roger for his actions and calling the authorities, Mrs. Jones demonstrates mercy, hospitality, and charity. She not only feeds Roger but also gives him ten dollars to purchase a pair of blue suede shoes.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Roger claims that the immediate reason for which he tried to steal Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones's purse is that he wanted to buy himself a pair of blue suede shoes. However, she quickly ascertains the larger issues that affect Roger's behavior. She says to him,

You ought to be my son. I would teach you right from wrong. Least I can do right now is to wash your face. Are you hungry?

Although the boy replies in the negative, she makes Roger wash his face (giving him a clean towel and warm water with which to do it), and she asks him again if he has had his dinner. Tellingly, he replies that there is "'nobody home'" at his house. She tells him, then, that they are going to eat, no longer offering him a chance to respond because, as she says,

I believe you're hungry—or been hungry—to try to snatch my pocketbook.

In other words, Mrs. Jones believes that Roger really tried to steal her purse because he is hungry, or because he does not have enough to eat in general. Further, she seems to think that if there is no one home to feed him, then there is no one at home to teach him right from wrong, either. So, while Roger claims that his reason to steal is his desire for trendy shoes, Mrs. Jones believes that his real reason is that he needs food and guidance. After all, she says that she's been in a similar position before.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In "Thank You, M'am," Roger attempts to steal the purse of Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones. Things do not go as planned for Roger, and after a good scolding from Mrs. Jones, he ends up being placed in a half-nelson and taken to her home. Mrs. Jones instructs Roger to wash his face and discovers that he has not yet eaten supper. Mrs. Jones assumes that Roger attempted to steal her purse because he is hungry. She plans to prepare some supper. Roger, however, informs her that he wanted money for a "pair of blue suede shoes." Mrs. Jones tells Roger that he could have simply asked her for the money. She shares that she remembers times when she wanted things she could not have. Roger sees opportunities to run but instead chooses to stay. After feeding him supper, Mrs. Jones gives him ten dollars for shoes and tells him to behave. Roger never sees Mrs. Jones again.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Roger, the protagonist of "Thank You, M'am" by Langston Hughes, is a teenage boy who tries to steal a woman's purse but picks the wrong woman if he wanted an easy mark. Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones is an imposing African American woman who, when she feels Roger pulling on her purse, tosses him to the ground. 

When she looks more closely at the boy, she notices that he looks decidedly dirty and unkempt, as if he has not been taking care of himself or has had no one taking care of him. She feels some sympathy for the boy, but she does not turn soft. She tells him that, since he is the one who interfered with her plans, he must not be so quick to leave. She takes him home and begins to make some dinner. She says,

“I believe you’re hungry—or been hungry—to try to snatch my pocketbook.”
“I wanted a pair of blue suede shoes,” said the boy.

He was not, as she assumed, trying to steal her purse to get money to eat; he wanted money to buy blue suede shoes. Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones eventually gives the boy ten dollars for the shoes, as she was once someone who also "wanted things [she]could not get." It seems Roger actually picked the right woman from whom to steal a purse.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial